River Restoration, Done Right (and Wrong)

March 1, 2009

That movie title, “A River Runs Through It,” would make a pretty good one for the story that follows, especially if you take the words literally. In the film, the river courses through rustic mountain vales of the Rockies as it also runs through the lives of fly-fishing young men and their dad. In the admittedly more prosaic account that follows here, the river is not really a metaphor of coming of age, but the tale of a hydrologically complex water usage challenge. It might easily have become a regulatory and economic nightmare as well. This actually did occur, notoriously, in a river basin nearby. Fortunately–in part, because that earlier fiasco was so instructive–the rough events did not recur.

Now, the “it” that the river runs through is not the life of a fictional character, but a striking geologic feature: a deep bed of rocky volcanic basalt, hundreds of feet thick. “Through it,” the river in this story does not run so much as it seeps, at an alarmingly rapid pace, as through a rocky, multi-story sieve. Far below, it eventually pools into a subterranean aquifer: a sort of second underwater river or lake. The unusual vertical “trickle-down” terrain presents the surrounding rural region of about 200,000-plus people, one piece of a daunting puzzle of how to integrate water usage, conservation, and apportionment.

The challenge actually begins with the arcane task of scientifically defining the geologic characteristics. This is necessitated, not so much for attaining knowledge, but to marshal facts in high-profile legal water-rights battles. These have been fought out, so far, across several state supreme courts. Being a vital economic and political challenge, this puzzle morphs into a shared, communitywide enterprise.

In both stories, a river meanders in high mountain canyons. Adventuring boaters catch sight of evergreens and snow-capped mountain peaks. Our river is the Deschutes, in Central Oregon–named for its dramatic chutes or churning rapids, which make it a mecca for whitewater enthusiasts. These and other regional attractions have also been drawing new residents at a spectacular rate: Over the past three-plus decades, local population has grown four-fold. As of the mid 2000s, the US Census Bureau ranked Deschutes County as the fastest growing in Oregon, and twenty-ninth fastest in the nation.

During the decades of explosive growth, accommodating the many claims became increasingly challenging. A very obvious, and somewhat painful, visual reminder of this was the river itself and its tributary flows. Once known for their unfailing gurgling chutes, these have lately shriveled here and there at a worrying pace, into meekly murmuring trickles.

As for the river’s sustaining role, the Deschutes and tributaries support seven irrigation districts, a Central Oregon Cities Organization consisting of nine cities (the largest being Bend, population 60,000) and affiliated drinking water suppliers, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, scattered towns, and farming. All of the cities, towns, farms, and tribes collectively enjoy specific water rights to the Deschutes, its tributaries, or aquifer below.

Photos: Andy Fisher

Agriculturally, a 2002 census reports that 1.77 million acres of this basin are given to farming and livestock; roughly one-tenth is irrigated. Family farms predominate–but most of these draw income from non-farm sources. Deschutes County proper notes one resident involved in its river “is largely home to lifestyle or hobby farming, with just a few areas remaining of large commercial farms,” says Bruce Aylward, Ph.D, director of Ecosystem Economics LLC. For most of the past decade, Aylward has been closely involved in local water, conservation, and biodiversity issues.

Conflicts between cities and environmentalists over how to balance growth with preservation have simmered for years, notes Aylward. Historically, growth has surged with relative little restraint. “Given that we have this system of water rights, it works pretty well for water users, but hasn’t worked as well for the environment,” he says.

Concurring is Steve Johnson, district secretary and manager for the Central Oregon Irrigation District (COID), who points out, “This is a common story all over the West–and in the world. There’s increasing demand for water [both for human consumption and in food production], and, at the same time, there’s the question of how to protect, preserve, and sustain the environment–and especially the aquatic systems.”

In early days of Western settlement, the US government built dams to foster farming. States then apportioned water rights to users, and, even all these years later, notes Johnson, “Agriculture still commands about 80% to 90% of water flows,” despite dramatically changing land use and quadrupling newcomers. “So, where does that leave the cities and fish?” he asks.

Johnson’s COID residential users draw little or nothing from river, but do tap the aquifer–to which the river is hydrostatically connected.

Herein lies the heart of local problems.

Conflicts over this connectedness and its consequences came to a head in the mid-1990s, when surging growth necessitated that Bend seek more groundwater. This was answered briskly with a legal writ from WaterWatch of Oregon (WWO). WWO aims, per its mission statement, to “protect and restore flows” to waterways and to “sustain the native fish, wildlife, and the people who depend on healthy rivers.” (www.waterwatch.org)

Photos: Bea Arnstrong
The Swalley Irrigation District Main Canal Piping Project alone will put four times more water back into the Deschutes River than any other project to date.

The core issue here is thus a scientific one: Why should siphoning aquifer hurt the river? Literally “underlying” the hydrology is a physical relationship between the Deschutes’ flow along its bed, and a water table below. Despite the intervening rock–up to 900 feet thick, in some places, Johnson notes–it turns out that, as water is extracted from that deep pool, flows of the river belatedly decrease. The relationship is intuitively perhaps hard to accept. Besides the great physical separation, the voluminous aquifer itself is so huge that, as Aylward says, “the total amount being pumped out [for home use regionwide] is barely measurable”–something like 1.8% of the whole.

This seemed paltry and not worth fighting over. Yet, the physical reality of an alarming impact on surface flows is undeniable. Aylward elaborates on the connectedness as being “linked to the pressure that draws the river down through its rocky substrate. It’s a fairly obvious hydrologic fact, and legal fact, that groundwater is connected to surface water,” he says. “But the impact is definitely less obvious here than in other places”–which he has toured in his professional work.

In the Deschutes, specifically, “if you pull water today, there’s less water in stream three days later–something that has been understood, but [until fairly recently] was not scientifically calculated,” he adds.

With the WaterWatch case in the docket, hydrologists from the US Geological Survey were summoned as experts to investigate the linkage, confirm it scientifically, and, if possible, suggest equitable solutions. The eventual findings fully upheld the WWO claim.

As Aylward recounts, the case eventually landed in the Oregon Supreme Court. After the victory, the state legislature then codified the river-to-aquifer relationship as law. This “was sort of the first necessary step towards developing sustainable surface and groundwater management in Oregon,” he says. “And once the law was passed, there was nothing else to fight.” Similar cases, he adds, have subsequently hit the supreme courts of Idaho and Montana as well.

In this case again, Oregon’s legislative solution, although technically somewhat complex, embodies a simple principle: Pumping water out of the aquifer impacts the river above, even though the actual diminishment may be long delayed. As a fairly straightforward legal solution for aquifer-tapping cities, he says the statute requires that, “You don’t have to worry about when that mitigation water needs to be put in the stream,” you merely have to account for “how much did you pull all year long? And then you go and acquire the water from irrigators [for replenishment]. And then you leave it in stream in the summer.”

As a threshold for determining at what point extraction must be compensated by mitigation, Oregon sets a fairly low impact level of just 1 cubic foot per second (cfs) or 1%, whichever is less, Aylward adds. Bottom line: If a city needs to drink from the aquifer, it must somehow obtain irrigation water from farmers for replenishment–and return it to the river.

Creating a Water Alliance
Thus, from the necessity for cooperation arose the idea of creating an informal Deschutes Water Alliance (DWA). A precursor of this ad hoc group, the non-profit Deschutes River Conservancy (DRC), had already been in the business of river-flow restoration since the mid-1980s, and so the DRC provided a ready umbrella structure for the DWA, notes DRC’s executive director Tod Heisler.

Whenever the subject of Oregon and water conflict arises, it’s probably impossible not to think of what has been happening, during this same period, in nearby Klamath. The allusion to that river came up in several discussions, in comparing the legal battle in Deschutes. Each time, the tone of voice is lowered, as when one speaks of a somber or regrettable episode–Klamath. In local parlance, it is almost synonymous with a water management fiasco and worst-case outcome.

As for what happened, here is the short version.

In the 1980s–90s, droughts impacted flows, and suckerfish and coho became endangered. Around 2000, droughts worsened. Farming began to “suck” too–crops were failing badly. In 2001, the US government declared a drought disaster. River water was deemed inadequate to support both farming and fish habitats. Environmentalists sued on behalf of the suckers. US regulators cut off water supply to hundreds of farms.

You can only imagine the bitterness of farm families, perceiving themselves and their livelihoods “sacrificed,” literally, for suckerfish. After almost a decade of pain, commercial disaster, and angry battles often spilling over to the highest national political levels, a Klamath Restoration Agreement was released, in 2008. Heisler observes, “We’re one basin north of Klamath.”

However, and fortunately–when the DRC was formed a dozen years ago–he points out, “We were not at the time under the immediate gun of ESA [the Endangered Species Act], having all that pressure and the threat of possible litigation. Once you get to that point, it’s very hard to establish a multi-stakeholder collaborative process–because fear rules, and the bunker mentality takes over. It’s all turned over to the lawyers.”

To avoid such a fate, then, about 20 Deschutes groups–consisting of public and private interests, cities, tribes, irrigators, environmentalists, real estate groups, representatives from recreation and tourism, and two state departments–began meeting in 2004 to thrash out the question of how the water demands of cities, farms, and fish could possibly be harmonized.

As noted earlier, the key with surface flows lay with farmers. It is they who, again, own up to 90% of what’s available. However, unlike other communities, a fair number of Deschutes farmers do not find themselves in the extremity of having to defend their farming livelihoods. As Heisler explains, though, “rights-owners still do tend to want to protect their water rights” and don’t necessarily wish to “let go” easily. Nor are irrigation districts keen on losing assessment incomes.

However, in the Deschutes case, a happy meeting-point is reachable if farmers, who may not always be in full production, find they can lease water right to the conservancy, to replenish the river. In fact, this strategy, says Heisler, “has worked incredibly well to create a wonderful incentive for folks who might want to be occasionally “˜hobby farmers’ or “˜gentlemen farmers’ … to put some of their water in-stream for temporary periods.” In so doing, they preserve ownership rights and maintain the land for exclusive farm use–without actually farming.

On these terms, then, the DRC has reached the point of transferring about 6,000 to 7,000 acres per feet of water a year to the river, through farm-right leasing.

To Conserve Water: Line or Pipe Irrigation Canals
Leasing water is one solution, but what is now the centerpiece of the Deschutes Alliance campaign, is piping. Long-term, the group envisions spending millions of dollars to buy hundreds of miles of lining materials and pipes for its network of irrigation canals and ditches, spanning seven districts.

Excavated into the region’s fractured basalt, this web of gaping troughs is steadily seeping water at rates in excess of 40%. In order to deliver one cubic foot per second of water to farmers living miles away, almost 2 cfs must be removed from the river, Johnson says, “to push it along the channel,” in which nearly half soaks away.

Pipes or liners do a nice job saving it.

So, to date, a half dozen of projects are either underway or finished, on stretches of canals or laterals ranging from 3 to 12 miles each. As more funds become available, more pipes or liners can be completed. Typical of projects so far is a 7.5-mile span of HDPE in Bend, equipped with sprinkler meters (to replace wasteful flood irrigation) and McCrometer propeller meters; it cost about $2.1 million and is saving 2,302 acre-feet per year. And the affiliated Swalley Irrigation District is piping nearly two miles of canal, enabling 7 cfs to revert to the Deschutes (nearly 3,000 acre-feet per year); the cost is about $1.5 million.

Under law, all water saved becomes free and clear of former rights claim. It can be left in the Deschutes–from which it eventually also replenishes the Columbia, says Johnson. Farmers still receive their water as always, even enjoying a boost in its steadier pressure and flow controls, gained by piping. All in all, Johnson observes, “Piping to conserve water is nearly a “˜no brainer’–except for the expense involved.”

That is indeed the hurdle. Piping is costly, and money is getting harder to come by. Economizing on cost has been one of his chief concerns in selecting materials. For this reason, for example, smaller-diameter 20-inch to 36-inch HDPE is chosen where possible, and is proving optimal in pressurized spans. HDPE, Johnson notes, “will last forever [it’s rated to go 50 or so years under pressure] with minimal maintenance.” Unlike steel, it bends and is less susceptible to long-term scouring from sediment, he has found. “Anything to reduce the need” for enormous cost of pipe-replacement down the road “is a good investment,” he adds.

Also, global demand for construction materials, and even petroleum pricing, both impact costs significantly, up or down. Avoiding the need for steel welding in the field is also desirable, he adds, to reduce the potential for leaks or errors. HDPE is again preferable, because it can be fused and fabricated in-shop, where the equipment investment easily pays for itself.

Using larger-dimension spans (e.g., 8-foot to 10-foot diameters) he adds, “You’re almost forced to go to steel” for its added strength. In such cases, use care to maintain the liner integrity, he advises, “and prevent potential corrosion points” which may leak and cause expenses down the road.

Hydro-Powered Finance
At this point, the enormous task and expense is only begun. And yet, already, says Heisler, the Alliance “has identified more than $100 million [in feasible projects], without really trying very hard.”

Water districts don’t have that kind of money. So, the Conservancy is taking a lead in helping to ferret out more.

Typically, modest matching grants can be found which might cover one portion of the pipe laying or lining work. For example, a $90,000 award from the Bureau of Reclamation to Johnson’s COID in winter 2008–09 is paying for pipes in a half-mile lateral. This is matched by $90,000 from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (funded by the Bonneville Power Administration [BPA] utility). “Just under 1 cfs will go in-stream permanently” from this project, notes Johnson. “This actually works out to a very good deal for water.”

He’s found that, with outside help to pay for materials, small lining and piping jobs can be constructed by water agencies in-house, within budgets.

To fund costlier sections, says Heisler, a key element is to design the pipe to include hydroelectric power generation. Proceeds from sales of power to the electrical grid can then, of course, recoup the investment in coming years.

In winter 2008–09, the first such pilot–a small, three-quarter megawatt plant–was installed along a 7-plus mile stretch of the Swalley Irrigation District in Bend, at a combined cost (pipe and plant) of about $12 million. Commissioning is set for early 2009. Much larger is a 5 MW plant for a two-and-a-half-mile-long piece of the Butte Canal within COID; it will cost about $22 million and should conserve about the same quantity of water as the Swalley plant. Besides earning revenues from power sales, Heisler anticipates that this one, and others, should qualify for a Business Energy Tax credit and win green funding from a local energy trust.

Just a bit more cost-recovery should be available too, someday, from tapping the developed value of the “new” real estate that is created when a canal is piped and then refilled with earth, owing to the reduced liability of not having a canal anymore, and reduced operational cost, Heisler says.

Permanent Rights Sales
Besides power sales, though, the biggest chunk of revenue is expected from sales of water rights to restoration buyers. Note that: sales, not leases. Here, as Johnson explains, the deals being envisioned are rather innovative and unusual. Under the Deschutes Alliance, as the various cities’ growth removes land out of agricultural production, the city is now managing to acquire water rights, not just on occasional leases, but permanently. This is extraordinary, because, under Oregon law, the water right must usually first be reallocated before any construction may occur. At this point, the water right belongs to the developer who bought it with the land–but the developer can’t use it and has no obvious customer to sell it to (agriculture demand being on the wane), so that’s out. In effect, the water value is lost.

Meanwhile, the irrigation district is also negatively impacted, because it is now losing the revenue from a farm now defunct. And the population-swollen urban area is also stuck, because it needs to pump more water from the aquifer, but can’t. (Also, under EPA standards, cities may not simply draw from open irrigation canals.)

Photos: Oregon Water Conservation District
Steel piping replaces wasteful unlined irrigation canal in the Central Oregon Water Conservation District, preventing a seepage rate in excess of 40%.

Again, as emphasized earlier, that is the central problem here: Depleting the aquifer harms the river. The obvious solution then, is this: Somehow, the no-longer-needed water right of the old farm must be shifted back to the river. Doing this should hopefully offset the aquifer depletion envisioned by the city.

And everybody wins. In the innovative multi-party deal that ensues, as Johnson recounts it, “The irrigation district first buys this right from the developer and sells the right to the city–which doesn’t really want river water–except in order exchange it for the right to extract more water from the aquifer.”

Next, the city will raise the needed funds, from added water sales it will enjoy, to repay the water district–agreeing to cover the annual assessment that the farmer used to pay.

Here, he says, “We add another little twist.” Cities typically receive big fees from developers during the permit process–and so, Johnson’s district allows the cities to pass these fees along to the district, to pay for water rights in one lump, too. Cities, he explains, typically prefer this arrangement because, “They don’t necessarily want to pay the irrigation districts forever, because they don’t know what their revenues are going to be.”

Other, more complex fees are also applied. But the above brief sketch illustrates how, if they’re determined to, the parties work something out. Thanks to a collaborative spirit, it’s done almost by handshake–“all voluntary and agreed to,” says Johnson.

And besides this innovative sales transaction to “pay the piper,” outright grants are being awarded by organizations such as the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife; the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board (funded by state lottery); Portland Gas and Electric and BPA utilities, which pay to mitigate the river impact of hydro projects; the US Bureau of Reclamation; and assorted philanthropies and private interests. An example of the latter: A housing developer pitched in no less than $200,000, which it was able to raise by promising home buyers that 2% of their closing cost would help restore the heavily dewatered river, visible in nearby canyon.

Now the Fish Swim Through It
Having successfully maneuvered legal “rapids” by such means, the Alliance has lately come to a smooth patch: In recent years, steelhead trout and salmon have begun to be reintroduced. This, notes Heisler, will likely raise the visibility of river restoration activity even more–and further motivate states, private citizens, and conservationists towards enhancing the habitat.

Meanwhile, the cities continue to recognize their obligation not to withdraw more water from the aquifer than needed. As Johnson points out, city departments have begun to impose new self-discipline by applying a range of conservation measures. In Bend, for instance, building codes govern water meters on new connections and now require minimum-flow toilets. And flat-rate metering for water has been discarded in favor of a sliding scale that increases with use. So far, these and other measures have helped his district avoid any net increase in water demand for the past three years–despite concurrent population growth of about 14%. He sums up: “The cities are doing what they need to do.”

Aylward–who actually directed the DRC’s water-banking operation from 2002 to 2007–has recently moved on to doing similar work and replicating the principles elsewhere. He’s now setting up banks and consulting for four or five western communities.

Reflecting on the conflicts and challenges that are still routinely encountered, Aylward observes that, typically, “land-use changes are the driver in changing water use. New uses for water are not necessarily the same ones as before.”

“So,” he asks, “how does water management adapt to that?”

This becomes the starting point. In the absence of well-established models to follow, agencies must somehow become innovative and resourceful. Meanwhile, each local situation tends to present its own special angle or dominant interest, be it municipal, agricultural, environmental, governmental, or tribal. “A lot of factors go into this,” notes Aylward. But the one constant is that, “Everything is always changing, and water use cannot be static. Water is going to need to move wherever the demand is.”

Conflicts arise because change is hard for some constituencies to accept, and interests are often mired in modes of operation that no longer apply. The challenge becomes one of communicating to all, the reality and necessity of adaptive change, and then assuaging fears and concerns. This can be especially difficult when lifestyles, and even livelihoods, are facing disruption. He says that sometimes “the question becomes whether it is all going to go through courts and conflicts–or, be resolved through agreements and consensus, cooperation, and business transactions.”

On this point, the Deschutes region was fortunate in that, after the legal challenges were settled and the science work completed, the community succeeded in coming together to arrive at viable outcomes. So far, at least, this has brought only minimal disruption at most, to anyone.

But, then again: On the river, as in life, conditions are always changing.

About the Author

David Engle

David Engle specializes in construction-related topics.

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